SAN FRANCISCO – In a funky, exposed-pipe room on what used to be part of the San Francisco Chronicle building's first floor – hard times, audible sigh, for newspapers having to sell off space – a loosely affiliated group of writers gathered to read from their work.
Nothing too unusual about that. This city is nothing if not literary. Every cafe has its poet laureate, every bistro its writer-in-residence, every dive bar its Bukowski.
What made the bi-monthly gathering of the LitUp Writers at the Intersection for the Arts noteworthy was the raw emotion and vulnerability in stories delivered by both aspiring and established fiction crafters and memoirists. It was not some slick, über-NPR-cool "This American Life" production, nor was it a takeoff on the standup comedy stylings of the heralded "Mortify" crew in the Bay Area.
This, rather, was open- a-vein writing. Funny, yes. Heartfelt, often. Stilted and maundering, occasionally. Call it San Francisco Unwired, stripped of ironic detachment – at $5 a ticket, too.
More than anything, I walked out after the 90-minute reading with a new appreciation of just how hard it is to write well, especially for the spoken word. I felt for some of the younger participants, MFA students at local universities, as they stood exposed on stage, manuscript pages quivering in their hands.
But when a story worked, when it fully engaged the audience and seemingly imbued this small performance space with a communal vibe, the words rang true. It was like overhearing two friends at the booth next to you sharing intimate details; you couldn't help but crane your neck and listen in.
And that's not just the $1 Jell-O shots talking, folks.
Such writer-listener intimacy is what spawned the group's shows, according to one of LitUp Writers' founders, Jennifer Lou.
An English lit major at Columbia who fell under the spell of Silicon Valley techies for a few years before coming back like a wayward daughter to her first love, Lou said the idea for the public readings came, not surprisingly, from a conversation in a cafe among her friends from a writing class.
"They got to talking about stories of their names," she said. "We all had one. Kelly changed her name because she was talking about how people reacted to her name, and Brittany had gotten divorced so she talked about getting her name back. So, we decided to put together a show about names as a theme.
"We were surprised. We had a lot of people come out – 100 people. We had so much fun that we decided to do it again. Then we started doing it quarterly, then every other month."
The group now boasts a dozen writers, some published, some still striving to be. The group puts out a yearly journal of original stories, many of which germinated onstage.
"Our goal is to run a storytelling series," Lou said. "Sometimes, they are really funny stories on all kinds of topics. There's a niche in humor writing, but that's not really us. It's so hard to do well. We do a mix of that with very serious, poignant stories."
The story Lou read on this night was titled "The Talk," a wry retelling of how her strict Chinese immigrant father waited until her senior year in high school to tell her about sex – at a McDonald's near the airport in Hartford, Conn. She wanted to hide behind her burger as her dad recounted his own randy teen "temptations." Unfortunately, a jumbo jet rumbled right when dad got to the main point.
"Then he started to raise his voice because a shiny red and white TWA plane took off on the runway," Lou told the crowd. "He said, 'I'M GLAD I WAITED FOR YOUR MOM! PLEASE WAIT FOR MARRIAGE!' Luckily, between the playground noise and the plane, no one else heard my dad. But my 17-year-old virgin ears had been assaulted."
Lou waited for the laughter to subside, then recounted how, at 17, her father had to flee China, leaving his family behind, and roamed the streets of Taiwan on his own. The audience gained a greater understanding of a man who could've come off as solely a cartoonish depiction of the clueless immigrant father.
Such an abrupt narrative turn pleasantly defied audience expectations. But the final performer of the night was the biggest surprise. It turned out to be Richard Stockton, a professional stand-up comic, TV actor and public-radio storyteller. It was like having Michael Phelps show up at a public-pool swim meet.
Stockton, a Sacramento native now living in Santa Cruz, was 25 years older than any other performer. But his experience in front of an audience and open mikes shined brightly.
He was animated and vocally pliant, punctuating key words and phrases with either rock-star scream or a yoga teacher's murmur. His tale of teenage '60s rebellion at Rio Americano High School, focusing on his quixotic quest to rid school premises of a burdensome parking-lot stop sign, was elevated to Homeric mythos. It was a lively tale of civil disobedience mixed with teen drunkenness and stupidity. A ripping yarn, start to finish.
The crowd was transported – and not just because the price of Jell-O shots had been cut in half.
Asked later for the secrets of storytelling, Stockton replied, "What did Bob Newhart say? You need to feel like you're taking them by the hand. Emotionally, the experience in one-to-one. It's a conversation.
"When I'm really, really, really rocking a room, it's almost like my eyes go dim and I can see the energy going out. But the primary ingredient in being a good storyteller is time on stage. Just keep telling your story, man."
In San Francisco, that's not hard to do.
LITUP WRITERS READING
Highlights in Low Lighting 2: Selections from LitUp Writers
The LitUp writers collective has produced six shows featuring 30 Bay Area writers. Wednesday's performance will feature highlights from its performances and literary journal.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: 925 Mission St., San Francisco
How much: $5